Costa Rica’s Forests, Through the Eyes of a Science Teacher

In July, 16 school teachers from around the U.S. traveled to the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network’s site in Costa Rica to participate in ECO Classroom. There they learned how researchers collect data on tropical forests, interacted with scientists from all over the world and experienced the sights, sounds (and smells!) of life at a field station deep in the rainforest. Upon returning to their schools, teachers like Katie Cohen have exciting stories and engaging new lessons to share with their students.

One participant in the ECO Classroom trip to Costa Rica. (© Shelby Childress-Riha)

As I lie in bed trying to distract myself from the noxious fumes of the peccary toilet wafting in through my window, I am reflecting back on some of the incredible things I’ve been able to experience here in Costa Rica today.

Today was pure magic. I woke up at 5 a.m. (yes, me, I know this is unheard of) to go bird watching. A task which I have learned I am not particularly adept at. In fact, as Murphy’s law would have it, I discovered that 90% of the time birds would somehow instinctively sense that I was trying to find them in the tripod scope and spitefully hop just out of view as I put my eye up to it.

As a result I saw close-ups of some incredible foliage and was mercilessly teased for being excited about the squirrel and peccaries I found on my own, as they were not of the feathered variety. I also took a lot of pictures of flowers since they were much more understanding of my plight and made no attempt to fly away from me. After a hearty breakfast of gallo pinto, melt-in-your-mouth pineapple and slightly humidity-stricken (aka soggy) fruit loops I was ready for the next adventure.

As is typical of me, on my way to class I got distracted by photographing the mama and baby three-toed sloth (whom I visit and talk to at least twice a day), and had to be hunted down. (Between you and me: I wasn’t sorry I was late, the sloths were mesmerizing and completely worth it, but I was sorry I made people leave the air-conditioned classroom to hunt me down in the 99% humidity).

The session with the botanist extraordinaire, Orlando, was mind boggling. Starting in 1985, he learned how to identify, by leaf alone, every one of the thousands of plant species endemic to La Selva. This is particularly awesome considering a) he was never formally educated in botany and b) most botanists need fertile plant samples (like fruit or seed pods) to ID a plant.

A social flycatcher finds a meal in Costa Rica. (© Shelby Childress-Riha)

Not only that, but he has helped to put together an extensive herbarium that contains physical evidence of all the species of plant found here, as well as an extensive digital library that is used for teachers and scientists around the world (which gave me a litany of lab ideas — brace yourselves kiddos).

Orlando exudes a contagious spark of curiosity, passion and dedication. For example, we walked outside with him for two minutes and within that time span we learned about this incredible spiky red seed that is related to the lychee and is activated for growth only once its seeds have made their way through the digestive system of a bird. Awesome! I would love to take a walk through the forest with him to glean just a tiny piece of his knowledge.

After lunch we headed out for what we thought would be a relatively innocuous walk through the rainforest. I grabbed my bag, a couple lenses and cameras, and, in spite of the blazing hot sun and clear sky, decided at the last minute to throw my rain cover into my bag (you never know). In hushed voices and with soft steps we crept through the forest hoping to find some neat animals.

The forest was buzzing with cicadas, birds and frogs. Our guide, Kenneth, found a tarantula exoskeleton which he picked up at arranged nicely on a leaf so he could then pretend it was really alive and scare people in the group…twice…suckers. I have an awesome video of a bullet ant (they’re mean, massive, and pack a mean punch) investigating the tarantula. I also finally captured the photo I’d been trying to get for days of the thumbnail-sized strawberry (aka blue jean — so named for looking like they’re wearing jeans) poison dart frog. Hooray!

An hour or so into the hike, I heard a roll of thunder in the distance and thought to myself “hmm, I wonder how long it will take for the storm to get here, we’re pretty deep in the rainforest.” I was immediately distracted by a collective gasp of awe as we came across the 3+ foot, lime green, parrot snake wrestling with the massive frog it had halfway in his mouth. So distracted that it didn’t register that the forest had gone completely silent, at least not until the first drops began to fall.

The first "class" of teachers who participated in ECO Classroom's professional development training in Costa Rica.

The first “class” of teachers who participated in ECO Classroom’s professional development training in Costa Rica. (© Mike Johnsen)

I frantically shoved my camera gear into my bag and swaddled it with my rain cover as the heavens opened — and I mean opened. It was as if an entire Olympic-sized swimming pool was dumped over our heads in a matter of seconds. We could barely keep our eyes open and were up to our ankles in water and completely drenched. Never one to miss a photo op, I kept my waterproof camera on the parrot snake fighting with his meal and — finally cool for the first time in days — came to the conclusion that rain is a good thing. We carefully spent the next thirty minutes sinking into massive mud puddles and joking about who was going to slip and slide it down the trail.

What’s that in the distance? Oh hallelujah, it’s a covered picnic bench! Even better, it’s a picnic bench occupied by Kelly, a Ph.D. science student studying the symbiotic relationship between flavocotea ants and the ocotea tree here. Apparently these ants are the perfect parasite. They keep the house (aka hollow tree branches) immaculate (poop included, which is not normal) and eat any of the other Arthropods that try to claim it for their own. The queen lives about 15 years, constantly producing the eggs that grown into worker ants (who live a whole 20 days — talk about being worked to death) that feed the colony. They also kill other ocotea trees that are too close to their territory and colonies of ants that are too close for comfort. Who knew that ants were so fascinating?!

The whole hike was definitely the highlight of my trip so far. Now I’ll fall asleep to the sounds of a gentle rain and cooing geckos.

Katie Cohen is a science teacher at Medea Creek Middle School in southern California, and one of 16 teachers selected to participate in ECO Classroom, a professional development opportunity for teachers created by CI and the Northrop Grumman Foundation. Katie’s blog was originally published on her team’s blog.

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